Young Artist with Autism Finds Critical Acclaim

His art has been exhibited throughout the U.S., in Kiev, Galapagos, Curacao and the Cayman Islands. He can compose music on a computer, without the benefit of sound. He’s won medals for ballroom dancing. Yet a skills evaluation, conducted, when Seth Chwast – who has profound autism – was 18, indicated that he could look forward to a career in “dry mopping.”

“I was determined to find something that Seth could both enjoy and excel at, ” says his mother Debra. And that didn’t happen for two more years.

At 20, however, he blossomed after taking a series of short classes in oil painting and charcoal drawing at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Seth can’t stay alone in the house or cross the street without assistance, but he’s fearless where his art is concerned,” says Debra. “He’s always looking for new challenges and experimenting with new media.” For one of his earliest works, an abstract called “Freedom,” all the furniture was cleared from the room and a canvas was laid on the floor. “He just sat in the middle of it and started painting,” she says.

Seth never paints alone, only with a mentor – usually someone affiliated with the Cleveland Institute of Art – who understands and appreciates whatever he’s attempting at the moment. “He won’t paint for me,” says his mom, “but the canvas is like a membrane between him and the other artist. It’s like they’re hearing his heart.”

"Manhattan Floating in the East River" consists of 104 panels.

“Manhattan Floating in the East River” consists of 104 panels.

The detail that’s central to much of Seth’s work renders his OCD an advantage. In “The Dutch Master,” which Debra refers to as a black and white “cross between Rembrandt and Peter Max,” he employs countless hatch marks to suggest color and texture.

When Seth was six, he began creating highly detailed maps of the U.S., Africa and other continents. The evolution of that early fascination is evident in his largest piece to date, “Manhattan Floating,” consisting of 104 16 X 24″ acrylic panels (11 feet high and 26 feet long), which required two years of sustained effort. In 2010, it was displayed at the Time Equities building in Manhattan, where it enjoyed the longest showing in the history of that venue.

Debra has chronicled Seth’s awakening through art in a documentary, “A Different Kind of Journey,” which aired on PBS. After viewing the film, NBC’s Today Show covered his story, subsequently singling him out as 2008’s “most inspiring person.” Last year his art was captured on the UN’s autism awareness stamp.

“Seth loves publicity but he doesn’t understand the concepts of fame or money,” explains Debra. “He simply believes that he’s making new friends. When he recently sold works depicting pigs and dragons to Norwegian collectors, he commented that the animals had ‘gone to live in Norway.'”

Describing Seth’s reaction to children he once observed in a clinic, Debra remarks that he “wants to heal the world” and believes that his art “will make people feel all better.” Others appear to agree. His work has been purchased by hospitals and featured on the covers of medical texts.

Seth also has uncanny musical ability. “At the age of eight, you could turn him away from the piano, strike a chord, and he’d respond ‘augmented G seventh,” says his mom. “He knew intuitively how to compose; he just began doing it. It took his music therapist about 10 minutes to explain what it meant to arrange a piece for multiple instruments, and then he was able to do that, too. In fact, his musical talent may surpass his ability in the graphic arts. We just haven’t focused on it.”

At 30, Seth spends half of each day working on his art, in a state of “total concentration and bliss.” Debra believes that it has helped him become more verbal. “He has speech but not functional language. The back and forth of conversation is difficult for him.” But when wearing tee shirts that feature his paintings, he reaches out to others. “He’ll hand a new acquaintance his card, comment on his shirt, ask about their family. His art has given him the confidence to do this.”

A portion of the "Mythic Creatures Mural" appeared on a UN autism awareness stamp.

A portion of the “Mythic Creatures Mural” appeared on a UN autism awareness stamp.

Seth maintains both a blog and Facebook page. His ‘artist statements’ are written without assistance,” says Debra. “Although he also composes the Facebook entries, he first speaks his ideas, then asks his art mentor, Molly Walker, to repeat the words before he’s comfortable writing them down. ”

In 2014, Seth’s work will be shown at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Plains Art Museum, in Fargo, North Dakota. Seth is also illustrating Abandoned Pearls, a book of poetry that Debra will soon publish with Holden Laurence.

Says Debra, “My message to parents of a child with autism is to never give up.”

Their story is detailed in “An Unexpected Life: A Mother and Son’s Story of Love, Determination, Autism and Art.” To view more examples of Seth’s work, visit his website.